The Case for Embracing Decaying Plants in Your Yard
Plus Piet Oudolf explains the “70 percent rule.”
Published Apr 17, 2023 5:05 PM
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Maybe you didn’t know it at the time, but there’s a strong chance you’ve walked right through Piet Oudolf’s work. The renowned Dutch landscape designer is the mastermind behind some of the most recognizable Eden-like scenes, from New York City’s High Line Park to the private gardens of Noma in Copenhagen. In his new book, At Work, readers get a peek into his creative process, the inspiration, and the techniques that have made him one of the most influential figures in contemporary gardening.
In this excerpt, Oudolf discusses the importance of embracing plants at every life phase, including their decay, with art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and artist Tino Sehgal.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Piet, it would be great to hear more about your own garden at Hummelo [in the Dutch province of Gelderland], because I know you’ve left it to change freely with the seasons, in a very organic way. I’ve always been interested in the idea of how to negotiate control and not control, or organization and self-organization. Was that a methodology that was honed in this laboratory of your own garden?
Piet Oudolf: I’ve always seen gardening as control. You cannot make a garden without it. Traditional gardening is a sort of super-control of everything that happens there. We started to discuss what we could do to make gardens more attractive not only for ourselves but also as living things. We found that the best way was to leave plants to go to seed. We stopped cutting back the plants too early—the skeletons were attractive enough to leave. At that time we didn’t even think about the birds, but only about aesthetics and how we could extend this beauty through the seasons. It is not that you lose control, but that you start to look differently. For someone who is not a gardener, it looks uncontrolled, but it’s not—it’s just that you look more than you act, rather than acting without thinking. When I started to do public gardens like the High Line and the Lurie Garden at Millennium Park, we had to work with gardeners and with plants that were, both of them, growing and developing. We had to see what would happen, and I think that is losing control without losing control, because we take control when necessary. Otherwise it becomes wild. You’re always looking for the edge of control. If plants are dying, we ask the gardeners what should be done. Maybe this plant doesn’t work anymore because the trees have grown too big. It becomes a dialogue with the gardener or owner about how we can make the garden work in the future and keep its beauty.
Tino Sehgal: So it’s an aesthetics of a controlled letting-go or an aesthetics of controlled noncontrol. I was in one of your gardens in Hamm in November, and I was struck by all these plants that were decaying and yet still sculptural. Of course, it’s planned, but on the other hand it’s a plan to let go of control.
Oudolf: Yes. When I see plants decaying in a setting like that, I’m still struck. A plant in a particular context can influence your idea of aesthetics. It’s like a good painting: You can see it a hundred times, and it still touches you. But plants change, and if you don’t control a planting, you won’t like it anymore. In 10 years’ time you’ll say, they should have done something about this.
Obrist: Your work is often described as part of the New Perennial movement. Please tell us more about this movement.
Oudolf: It was called the New Perennial movement, and in some places the Dutch Wave, because so many people came together in the 1980s and early ’90s with the idea that we should do something different in gardens and public spaces. It’s not that I don’t use trees and shrubs, because in every garden of mine there are trees and shrubs, but the focus at that time was on perennials. It became a movement very slowly, and they call it one now because it was copied so much. There have been a lot of books about naturalistic planting, especially since around 2010, but I think it all started in the 1980s. A group of people from Holland, Germany, and England held symposia about perennial plants for public spaces and their usefulness in making gardens more attractive. In the meantime we started to see decay as part of gardening, because we began to see that everything that happens in the garden is in the context of the season. You don’t expect flowers in the winter, and you don’t expect decay in the spring. That is part of the thinking of this movement, that you don’t vacuum your garden every day because you think it has to be clean. You look at your garden, and you think, okay, that looks good, although it is falling over. We were just following our own ideas about how a garden should look. We learned to garden with our eyes and senses.
Obrist: When we collaborated on the garden for Peter Zumthor’s Serpentine Pavilion in London, you explained to me the 70 percent rule. There are two kinds of perennials: structural perennials and filler perennials. You said that 70 percent should be structural and the rest filler.
Oudolf: Well, it’s not really a rule. It is more to say that not everything has to show off. There are plants that come into flower and then go dormant in the summer, like some of the poppies. We call these filler plants, which fill the bottom story a little, flower, then disappear. You need them to make the garden complete.
Excerpted from Piet Oudolf at Work, © 2023 by Piet Oudolf. Reproduced by permission of Phaidon. All rights reserved.